Sunday, November 18, 2007

(Spoilers for World War Hulk #5 ahead*)

Over the last few days I've seen some surprisingly underwhelmed reactions to the final issue of World War Hulk across the blogosphere. I have to admit I don't quite know where from these negative reactions are coming. World War Hulk succeeded at every stage because it knew exactly what it wanted to be and cherished no aspirations to be something it wasn't. Simply on those terms, it was the most purely satisfying superhero book I'd seen in quite a long time. The last issue could hardly be termed a disappointment.

Why is it so hard to make good superhero books? It shouldn't be, since so damn many of the things are produced on a monthly basis, and yet here we are. Many of the most popular creators working in mainstream comics don't really do old-school superhero books - so much of Marvel's output, for instance, is hybridized in some way that manages to dilute the superhero elements while also delegitimizing whatever other genre conventions are at play; ie, crime, horror, fantasy, political soap-opera. More of DC's mainline could be said to be "proper" superheroes than Marvel's, but most of DC's mainline is incompetent gibberish. We've had a weird experiment in superhero books these past few years, wherein the texture and tone of the stories has been almost completely overturned. While the mainline continues to be popular, longtime, returning or semi-involved readers can be forgiven for thinking that at some point these wonderful fantasy playgrounds they remember from their misspent youths have become adulterated in some indefinable yet irreconcilable fashion.

If you are going to ask the basic question, "if there must be superhero comics, what kind of superhero comics should there be?" I think the answer is something along the lines of World War Hulk: the kind of massive, slobberknocker of a spectacle, the emotional resonance of which (such that it is) is dependent on long-term investment in the kind of shared-universe soap-opera content that can't really exist in any other medium. If you have to make Hulk stories, don't make Hulk stories that could live a double life as Sci-Fi Channel original movies (like, say, the majority of Bruce Jones' run on the book): make Hulk stories that couldn't exist anywhere but the printed page. I think the folks involved have succeeded quite nicely at just that.

World War Hulk got as strong a reaction as it did among a number of previously disinterested observers by virtue of the fact that it presented a handful of extremely old-fashioned -- some might even say terminally familiar -- tropes in the context of this new, subliminally alienating status quo. To put it another way: there is nothing more basic to the historical appeal of the Marvel Universe than a story where everybody teams up to fight the Hulk. They've been doing it since Fantastic Four #12, and subsequently every few years since then. It's a well-established tradition. It just so happened that by the time World War Hulk shipped enough people has been seriously disenchanted with the direction of the Marvel Universe -- and Marvel in general -- that they were actually rooting for the Hulk to do some serious damage. People who had been disappointed with Marvel throughout Joe Quesada's tenure were looking forward to something that promised a return to the storytelling values of their idealized youth (whenever that actually was), when Iron Man and Mister Fantastic weren't neoconservative warlords with Negative Zone prison camps. People who didn't know their Civil War from their Secret War were just thrilled that Marvel might actually put out something worth reading again. Something with broader appeal than limp political allegory.

And lo, it was good. Five issues of the Hulk kicking peoples' asses? Sign me up. It actually made me not see the Sentry as an embarrassing pseudo-idea that should never have been resurrected from it's original mini-series -- get that, it actually made me not hate the Sentry. Everyone at Marvel talks about how cool a concept the Sentry is, but in practice he's been a walking deus ex machina who never does anything for fear of totally derailing whatever story he's in. Back in the Golden Age nobody seemed to care that the Spectre was accorded equal status in the Justice Society alongside the Atom and Wildcat, but nowadays it's hard to write a plausible story with such a monstrously overpowered plot device in a team setting. To his credit, Greg Pak actually used the character's awkwardness to the benefit of the story. The Sentry may have seemed like a peripheral character throughout the book, but he actually had a pretty nice arc when all was said and done - which is more than I can say for just about any other book I'd ever read with the Sentry in it. The fact that, when all was said and done, a wild-card like the Sentry had to come in and play clean-up for the ineffective "heroes" who started the problem in the first place was also a nice bit. I saw some complaints that the Illuminati were essentially sidelined by the final battle, but that doesn't bother me, on either a structural or story basis: the book had nothing to do with their redemption, and their actions in regards to the Hulk, the whole reason the Hulk was mad in the first place (his forced exile from Earth), are never really expiated. The Hulk gets more in the way of absolution than Iron Man and Mister Fantastic, which makes a lot of sense.

As for that conclusion? Well, what were people expecting? It certainly didn't end on a "To Be Continued" like Amazons Attack. The last couple pages of foreshadowing for future stories were essentially superfluous -- I don't know if I care in the least about Son of Hulk or whomever that is, and my interest in reading about the Red Hulk is pretty much nil considering he's being "written" by Jeph Loeb**. But that's neither here nor there: the story actually had a pretty good conclusion. It will read pretty well between two covers***, which is more than I can say for Civil War, House of M, Infinity Crisis or 52 which, for all their specific virtues or vices, are all definitively inaccessible to untrained readers. World War Hulk may still be fairly dense, but Pak does a good job of establishing the book's plot and each characters' motivations at multiple points throughout. Plus, you know, things actually happen, and not just isolated plot points lurching around in a vacuum of forced characterization.

Of course, we all knew that the book would end with the Hulk being both defeated and at least partially redeemed. Most of us even had a pretty good idea how that was going to work, considering that the betrayal of one or more of Hulk's warbound allies had been foreshadowed in the last issues of Planet Hulk. But familiarity is really no great sin in the context of serial superhero comics, and it's in this context the reader needs to recognize that a character like the Hulk had to be rehabilitated, eventually. Pak pulled off everything he needed to pull off with enough alacrity that you barely even noticed the creak of plot necessity putting all the pieces back into place, or mostly back in place. There's really no other way the book could have ended, and in all honesty I don't know how people were thinking it was going to end, if not like this -- with a big fight, a "shocking" twist to prove the Hulk was being manipulated by events, and another shocking twist**** to cause the Hulk to turn against his betrayers, all aimed at rehabilitating the Hulk by partially reorienting the moral responsibility for the previous carnage. He's still to blame -- even if the actual casus belli was an act of betrayal on the part of one of his Warbound and not actually the Illuminati's responsibility, well, he still declared war on Earth and demolished Manhattan in the process. Whomever next writes the Hulk will have an interesting status quo on their hands*****.

So was I satisfied? Yes. I got everything advertised, and don't feel like a schmuck for caring, which is what has inevitably happened the last few dozen times I bothered to care about anything like this. I honestly don't know why some of you sound so disappointed -- pretty much everything laid out in the first issue is finished, or has reached some semblance of a conclusion. True -- there is the small matter of the Black Bolt who got his ass kicked back in issue #1 being a Skrull: but those who didn't think there was any way the Hulk could ever defeat Black Bolt will probably be pleased by that development. There was a bit at the end with Tony Stark's weird satellites that seemed a bit hard to follow, but then I have generally not been a fan of Iron Man's generalized "control all machinery" powers.****** These are only qualms, and the fact is that I was pleased by this story every step of the way. Not fine art, but a damn fine superhero story -- for those of us who still enjoy such things, the pleasures are as rare as hens' teeth these days.

* I think "Spoiler Alerts" are silly, but I'll meet you halfway since the comic hasn't even been out for a week yet. Incidentally, Ozymandius is the evil mastermind at the end of Watchmen.

** "Written" is in scare-quotes to denote how little I care for Loeb's attempts at "writing".

*** Assuming they put in Pak's Incredible Hulk tie-in issues, which had some pretty essential information / foreshadowing concering the characters of Rick Jones and Miek. That's a big "if", but you really get the feeling that it's stuff that probably would have made it into the main series if they had the room; as opposed to, say, World War Hulk: Frontline, which reads more like stuff they thought up at the bar between mojitos.

**** In terms of Rick Jones -- he's about as dead as I am. He survived getting his spine cracked by the Hulk back in the 90s, he can survive getting gutted by Miek. Note that Pak didn't even waste a panel of an incidental character saying "Rick . . . can't be dead . . . he just can't be!" Why bother?

***** But since we know this person will be Jeph Loeb, we also know that nothing interesting will be done with said status quo.

****** Were those a result of Warren Ellis' run? I have to admit I think the whole of idea of having some kind of empathic control of electronic gadgets does a lot to strip the character's appeal -- less "cool exec with a heart of steel" and more "godlike cyberpunk messiah". In many ways the current incarnation of Iron Man seems a lot more like a member of the Authority than the Avengers -- and not merely in terms of his peremptory attitude towards geopolitics, but his new ill-defined deus ex machina set of powers. Iron Man shouldn't even have powers, for fucks' sake. That's as close to a central tenet of the character as you're likely to get.

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